COLUMBIA — The demonstration garden at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture has a little bit of everything: tomatoes, peanuts, squash, corn, beans and broccoli among others. One thing it’s missing is its own small flock of chickens, an absence that director Adam Saunders hopes to be filled soon.
Saunders counts himself among a group of Columbia residents pushing the city to loosen its rules on raising chickens. The existing ordinance, written in 1964, requires a half-acre for every chicken. The rule extends to other livestock, as well.
The Board of Health is nearing a final draft of a new ordinance that would let residents raise chickens but require them to confine the birds in coops or fenced-in areas and obtain consent from owners of adjoining property. The latest draft sets the maximum number of chickens at four, but that number remains fluid.
“With proper planning and crafting of an ordinance, I think it can be a success,” said board chairman David Sohl, who is assigned to a subcommittee drafting the new ordinance. The board wants “anecdotal evidence to back up the reason for the number we choose," Sohl said, so that "it’s not just a number picked out of thin air.”
With the new ordinance, Columbia is on the cusp of joining a national movement. The trend has caused cities such as Madison, Wis.; Portland, Ore.; New York and Kansas City to make it easier for urban dwellers to own chickens. Web sites and magazines focused on raising chickens in urban environments have been gaining popularity, and a documentary on the subject, "Mad City Chickens," is on a national circuit.
There are numerous reasons behind the growing demand for owning backyard chickens: pest control, compost, personal enjoyment, sustainability and the educational value it has for children. Across the board, though, supporters of urban chickens agree that the idea of having a constant supply of fresh eggs is what attracts them most to the idea.
“I eat eggs every morning,” Saunders said as he stood in the middle of the demonstration garden, wearing a straw hat that he said serves as both an AC unit and sunscreen. He leaned over to pick a few purple-podded beans, which made a crisp snap as he bit into them.
“This is why I garden,” he said with a smile.
If the City Council approves new rules to accommodate chickens, the demonstration garden would hold regular workshops to teach people how to raise their own and keep them aware of the rules. Part of the mission behind the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture is to teach people how to raise their own food, which includes teaching them how to raise healthy chickens.
“If you’re close to your food, you’re healthy,” he said. “It creates an appreciation for where you live and the energy and effort that goes into making food.”
Although he is anticipating the new ordinance, Saunders said he doesn’t agree with a rule in the draft that would require approval of all adjoining property owners.
“It’s unprecedented," Saunders said. "You don’t have to ask your neighbors if you want a dog.”
Cherith Moore has been working with Saunders and others to change the ordinance. She said the current draft is unnecessarily complicated.
“I am in favor of a simple change that would just take the chickens off of the list of forbidden animals,” Moore said. “The rest is covered through other ordinances regarding animal cruelty and nuisances.”
First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz has spoken with some residents of his ward, including Moore, and said he supports efforts to liberalize the policy toward backyard chickens.
“I’m hoping that the version that gets passed by the council will not have the clause that says that every neighbor has to approve,” Sturtz said. “ I think it should be complaint driven rather than having to get the sign-offs of every neighbor."
Columbia resident Mary Stilwell lives down the street from Moore. They both have food gardens that spread across the bulk of their lawn, and they frequently get together with other neighbors to have dinner with the fresh produce they grow. Like Saunders, she hopes to add chicken eggs to the menu soon.
Stilwell has been gathering petitions to present to the City Council, asking to remove hens from the list of forbidden livestock and allow up to 15 hens per property. Stilwell, who has stationed herself at the entrance to the Columbia Farmers Market, said she hopes to have 400 signatures to present once the Board of Health makes its final recommendation.
Stilwell also disapproves of the neighbor-approval requirement and hopes the maximum number of chickens in the draft will be increased.
“Four chickens for a four-family (member) household is not enough,” Stilwell said. “I would ask for at least 12.”
Stilwell has been involved with efforts to change the ordinance from the start. She said it began with a group of people meeting to write letters to the City Council requesting the ordinance be revised. The letters were eventually passed on to the Board of Health, which was already working to revise the entire animal code.
When the issue went before the board in May, Stilwell encouraged supporters to attend. After about 30 people showed up to the meeting, Board of Health members decided to create a subcommittee to draft new chicken rules.
Like Stilwell and Moore, many of the those who attended have their own gardens.
“Gardening has become such a common and popular thing, having a few chickens is a sort of natural extension of that,” said Greg Baka, a self-employed businessman and supporter of changing the law. “If you’re already raising your own vegetables, to be able to raise your own eggs goes along well with that hobby.”
With the rising popularity of organic food and sustainable living, gardening has grown from a hobby to a lifestyle, including some people who want to grow and produce food on their own instead of buying products that have been shipped to a store.
"That’s the point behind this — people being sustainable,” Stilwell said. “We’ve gotten to a point where people are disassociated with where their food comes from.”
Stilwell said that when she volunteered with the Walking School Bus program a few years ago, many of the children did not know the source of their food.
Despite this knowledge, it comes at the price of putting in time and money to buy the start-up materials such as chicken feed, heat lamps and coop materials. Costs can vary, depending on the type of materials a person chooses to use.
“You don’t have to go out and buy your coop materials,” Stilwell said. She suggested recycling old lumber and wood pallets for a coop. Owners can feed their chickens food scraps or let them scavenge the back yard instead of just using commercial feed.
Under the draft, chickens could also be raised without a coop if the owner has a fenced in area and the birds' wings are clipped.
Stilwell is also interested in using the chicken waste in her garden, which helps to create a faster compost turnover.
Raising chickens requires dedication. John and Janice Faaborg live outside of Columbia’s city limits and have been raising a flock of about 20 chickens for the past 15 years.
The Faaborgs said their daily routine involves letting their chickens out in the morning, making sure they have food and water, cleaning out the waste when necessary, collecting the eggs and letting them back in for the evening. Building a coop or fence that protects them against predators is also important, said the Faaborgs, who have had their flock attacked by raccoons and mink.
“You can’t leave for very long,” Janice Faaborg said. “One overnight won’t hurt, but you have to always have somebody taking care of them. It’s true with all livestock.”
The Faaborgs raise two breeds of chickens: barred rock, which lays regular brown eggs, and Araucanas, which are nicknamed Easter egg chickens because they lay light blue and green eggs.
“Going out to get the eggs, it’s just nice,” Janice Faaborg said.
The Faaborgs also said chickens provide a good source of entertainment for their family. “Each chicken has a different personality,” John Faaborg said.
Requirements in the latest draft ordinance were developed as a result of research done by the Board of Health’s chicken subcommittee members and a group of citizens known as “chicken people” that includes Stilwell, Moore, Baka and Saunders.
In addition to following resources, such as BackYardChickens.com, they have been collecting information about other city ordinances that have been changed to allow chickens.
The limit of four chickens was taken from Madison’s ordinance, but prospective chicken owners in Columbia don’t believe that is enough to support a family. Stilwell said she would ask for more because hens don't lay an egg each day.
Most of the Missouri cities that have changed their ordinances to allow chickens exceed Stilwell’s request; Kansas City allows residents to own 15 chickens, Independence allows 20, and in Springfield, the maximum is 25.
Stephanie Browning, director of the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, was asked at a recent board meeting to talk to Kansas City and Independence officials about the maximum number of chickens. She said that while drafting the ordinance has been a long process, she is willing to put in the time.
“Sometimes you can rush to do something one way or the other,” Browning said. “The wheels of the government turn slow but I’d rather have them turn slow knowing you craft something that really works.”
Creating a well-constructed ordinance means looking ahead to see how citizens may react once it has been passed.
“From the animal control perspective, I know that my staff wants to know that whatever is decided it’s something that can be enforced," Browning said. "We’re mostly thinking about what will happen when the ordinance passes and if people will complain."
The Board of Health is taking the possibility of complaints into consideration. Although Sohl said there have not been many people who have publicly come forward to express disagreement with loosening the rules, he has been keeping up with the Board of Health blog and the comments users have been leaving about the subject.
“I live in the city for a reason, so I don’t have to listen or deal with farm animals. If I want chickens, then I will move out to the county on some farmland. This is an urban area, not a farm,” said an anonymous source on the blog in response to a post asking for public input on the subject.
Patrick Comfert, an animal services official in Madison, said the city has fielded only one complaint in the past eight years since the ordinance allowing chickens was passed.
The complaint came from someone who said their neighbors owned five chickens instead of four, Comfert said, adding that the neighbors’ children were upset when they were told to give away a chicken they had named.
“It’s brought people into their backyards, and in the neighborhoods that are doing it,” Comfert said. “It would seem that people are a little more friendly and at least know their neighbors because it is a focal point for conversation.”
Chicken owners in Madison are responsible with the fowl and do a good job of policing themselves, Comfert said. He said that home owners associations that don’t allow chickens have not caused any problems as many of the chicken owners live in certain neighborhoods.
The Board of Health will continue to revise the draft of the chicken ordinance. Members plan to wait until the entire animal code revision is finished before the ordinance goes to City Council.